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I’m Dedicated to Cooking Homemade Family Dinners, Even Though It’s Exhausting

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logoIMG_7704One of my first “mommy friends” broke the news to me yesterday that she’s moving to Oregon. After I got done crying for 10 minutes straight, I asked her all about her soon-to-be new home. She said one of the biggest selling points was the communal aspect of the neighborhood; each home functions on their own, but there is a community garden each resident helps maintain, a shared park and small pond, and a requirement to live in the housing development is a commitment to partake in the weekly neighborhood potluck. While some may find these “commitments” stifling, I got lost in the daydream of a home-cooked meal being taken care of for me at least one night a week.

From the time we move out from under our familial care, we’re forced to fend for ourselves and either learn to cook or grab food on the go. While my meals got more detailed as my cooking skills improved and my family grew over the years, home cooking never became such a feat as when I made it a point to only cook healthy meals for my family of five.

Cooking at home, preferably from scratch, is the one thing that almost all health experts and food devotees can agree on as a simple solution to combat the country’s growing health problems like obesity, heart disease, and T2 diabetes. Mark Bittman claims that all one needs “is a few ingredients, and a little time, and you can produce great meals.” While I can’t disagree, what is often lost in translation is the time and resources that go into having those ingredients on hand in the first place. And of course the time it takes to clean up the meal after the fact.

One of my biggest aims in posting daily meals on my Instagram feed is to inspire other men and women out there to cook healthy meals at home; to encourage them along the way to enjoy the process and hopefully make it all seem less overwhelming. My tagline is, after all, “lover of real, whole foods, made approachable.”

But I don’t always love cooking, and it takes more time, energy, and resources than I can ever fit into short Instagram snippets of life. I seemingly have it easy as well, since I work part-time from home and can steal moments of time here and there throughout the day to cook either pieces or whole parts of our dinner meal. Even at that, I still get overwhelmed by the continual cycle of it all: prep, cook, clean, over and over again for three meals a day. Add that onto the growing intensity of homework for each child and numerous activities that require us to be in and out of the house almost every day, and it’s quite frankly exhausting. And one cannot ignore the increased costs involved with buying more fresh produce, whole grain products, and organic foods.

It all adds up to one exhausting, overwhelming chore. I definitely go through seasons where I resent being in the kitchen and cleaning up after kids who don’t always like my meals, let alone appreciate them, but still, somehow I do manage to find continual joy in cooking those meals. But not all moms agree with me. A recent study which looked at over 150 families from different ethnicities and walks of life found that very few women are finding any joy at all in home cooking. And those who inherently do enjoy cooking for their loved ones are often met with numerous obstacles including picky and ungrateful eaters, lack of proper kitchen equipment or adequate space, and limited access to affordable fresh food options. But whether some of the women loved to cook or hated it, they all felt a sense of pressure and personal responsibility to provide their families with somewhat healthy, home-cooked meals, yet most of the time they felt they were falling short.

We can wax poetic as much as we want about getting back to traditional ways of cooking and eating, and nostalgically recall how our grandmothers used to make everything from scratch, but the reality is, modern-day parenting looks a lot different than it did many years ago, for both better and worse. So how do we adjust our expectations to meet somewhere in the middle? And how do we erase the disconnect that exists between the powerful, booming health food industry, and the reality of struggling, overwhelmed parents who are just trying to find a better way?

A simple answer would be to powwow with some of your favorite friends and/or neighbors, and set up weekly potluck nights like the one mentioned above. Set the same day of the week and each family brings a piece of the meal; use some paper plates so clean up becomes minimal. I try to do this every few weeks with a friend or two and it definitely relieves the stress of cooking tremendously, but it would be so nice to have this to count on each and every week. Of course everyone’s schedules are slammed pack, usually a fault of our own, but it’s at least a shot at trying to make it work.

There’s of course the standard methods of batch cooking and crock pot cooking, which can be done in advance and en mass, leaving leftovers for lunches or another dinner. It’s why lasagnas are so beloved amongst mothers; they usually feed a family of 4-5 for at least two nights. A friend of mine uses a web-based service called Once A Month Meals, which plans out meals for you and breaks it down so that you can accomplish cooking a month of freezer meals in one fell swoop, an admittedly great concept, even though the thought of all that cooking seems a little tiring to me. She swears by it though.

Food delivery services are just about the best thing since sliced bread, but let’s face it, they are cost-prohibitive to many families. Other than a couple of girlfriends who have used them for brief periods of time to help them reach some weight loss goals, I’ve never known a family of 3 or more who use these services on a consistent basis. It’s much easier and cheaper to run up to Chipotle.

Which brings me to our country’s need for some decent, healthy “fast” food options. In our neighborhood, we have Chipotle, a Wahoo’s and a Veggie Grill as a few of the only faster food options I feel good about feeding to my family. I can’t always cook every single one of our 21 meals each week at home, so we do eat out a couple of nights a week, and this is our usual rotation. While they each have their particular strengths and weaknesses, trying to please 5 people on those limited options each week isn’t ideal but doable. It sure would be nice to have more faster type food chains available, offering up somewhat affordable, healthy food. And a healthy fast food drive-thru? My goodness that would make a killing anywhere it set up shop! Eating out, while convenient, isn’t always conducive to the pocket book or our health, but it sure would be nice to have more options we don’t feel tremendously guilty about eating.

There’s a myriad of other options, some more simple and others more complicated and time consuming, but the bottom line is this: While the homemade dinner isn’t a perfect concept in today’s modern family age, it’s a concept worth fighting for and trying to salvage. It’s more economical than eating out everyday, no matter what ingredients you use and no matter how some studies try to spin it. It can’t be argued that home-cooked meals are healthier, and repeated studies find that eating meals at home together is better for kids overall, from self-esteem to test scores, and may even help protect teens from bullying. And the study I cited previously, while it makes a point to highlight how ungrateful some family members can be in reaction to our cooking efforts, it fails to mention that the moments of ingratitude are always a chance to teach children how to be grateful. I practice this every single night with my middle child, who has a decidedly stubborn picky palette. These kids of ours aren’t born with the appreciation gene; it’s something us parents usually have to foster, and at the dinner table is as good a place as any to start.

Cooking at home for a family is hard, I won’t deny it. Then again, having a family is hard, tiring, and burdensome. While the answer to the problems with our food industry and Americans’ health don’t land squarely on the shoulders of a home-cooked meal, it’s a pretty good place to start.

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